They herded Orloff and the managers to a stone work shed at the edge of the camp and locked them all inside. Then they split up into teams of two and three, each with their own assignment: capture the nobles and collar them.
Brawny Jacque and his daughter Bleu targeted the Tremblée estate. Arwin, Aoi and the old man, whose name was Harl, ran off towards Azamont’s chateau. Others made for other noble residences and to track down members of the village council.
Arwin and his team followed his previous route, to the wall surrounding the fabulous garden behind Azamont’s house. Aoi tore a strip of cloth from the bottom of her lovely dress and used it to gag the talkative wallflower. With great care, they climbed over the wall, then snuck through the flowers and the puns to the back of the building. Wrought-iron trellis climbed part of the white wall, leading to a black, iron balcony on the second floor.
Aoi, serious and focused, whispered to the others. “There will be guards about. We need to try to avoid them, as well as any staff in the house, or risk bringing everyone down on us.”
Arwin was impressed. Something about their little rebellion had struck a fire within her and it seemed to burn brighter with each step they took.
Harl flexed his fingers then curled them into fists. He must have been sixty, if a day, but his lean body was hard and strong from years of forced labour. He had a glint in his eyes and a rakish smile to boot. It seemed that he, too, was quite keen on overthrowing the system that had abused him for so long.
Aoi took a step towards the back door and then hesitated. She gave Arwin an uncertain look, a little bit of distrust in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Arwin asked.
She brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. “Why are you doing this?”
“What do you mean?”
She looked quizzically at him. “I mean, I kind of understand liberating the flowers. It was a dare and two cute girls needed cheering up. But then going to all that trouble to free our people in the collars? And now, helping us take out the nobles and radically change our society?”
Harl interjected. “What she means to say, lad, is that you’re a foreigner. You aren’t blue like the rest of us. You have no ties to any of us. So why risk your life for people that don’t have anything to do with you?”
He paused for thought. It was a fair question. “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it much. It just…felt natural? Like the right thing to do?” Arwin shrugged. “I’m pretty sick of wealth and power inequality; it’s rampant back where I come from too. It just hurts most people. So a chance to bring that kind of system down and make things better for everyone sounds like a pretty good cause, something worth doing.”
“So, it’s just that easy for you?” she asked with a confused shake of the head.
He shook his head, a little embarrassed for some reason he couldn’t identify. “I guess it is. Anything to take down selfish rich people sounds really appealing to me right now.” He grew more serious. “I hate those guys and all the ways they ruin life for the rest of us. Whether I live here or not, I’m happy to help fight them.”
She bowed her head in respect. When she spoke next, her voice was iron hard. “I hate them too. And I’m going to make them all pay.” Her doubts assuaged, they continued the mission.
They tried the back door but, cracking the stout wooden portal open, they heard voices and the sounds of a busy kitchen.
So, instead, they climbed the cast-iron trellis up to the second-story balcony. Harl managed easily enough. Aoi struggled a bit but even though both men offered to help, she valiantly struggled up on her own, despite the ungainly, long skirt and the heels on her feet.
The balcony door was also unlocked and let them into what must have been the master bedroom. The room was vast, with a canopied bed, a sitting area with two couches, a writing desk, and a large fireplace. Large paintings hung from the walls, depicting young, feminine men in a variety of half-dressed, languid poses, as if they were prey waiting to be devoured. There was something uniformly hollow or sad in their eyes, and all looked off to the side or down at the floor, as if unable to meet the viewer’s gaze.
Arwin felt his skin crawl at the sight of the paintings.
Aoi’s pretty face hardened. “Beaus,” she stated. “I recognize some of them.” She pointed to one. “He’s about the age of Bleu’s father now. Works in the bakery. I heard he was really popular before coming here, especially with girls. He was apparently very outgoing and friendly. Now, he lives alone on the edge of town; never speaks. Freaks out if anyone touches him.”
Harl pointed to another. “He was cast out of Azamont’s house only six months after being taken in. His face was burned horribly but he wouldn’t explain why or about anything that had happened while he’d been here. He cut his own throat a few weeks after coming home. His mother was never right after that.”
Arwin’s hatred for Azamont rose to new heights.
Harl reached up and took hold of a painting. “Give me a hand,” he told Arwin.
Aoi looked stricken. “What are you doing? We don’t have time for this. Someone might catch us up here.”
Arwin shrugged and Harl ignored her. It took the both of them to get the huge rectangle down from the wall and laid on the wood floor.
Harl looked around. “Ain’t letting anyone see these. Whether our little rebellion works or not, I don’t want anyone coming in here and seeing their shame. Not right.”
Aoi sighed in resignation. She stalked over to the writing desk and pulled open a couple of drawers, then returned with a sharp-edged letter opener in hand. “Hurry up with the others.” She dug the opener into the back of the canvas and sliced along the edge as quickly and quietly as she could.
There were five paintings. It took some time to get them down and then cut the artwork out of the frames. Crumpling them up, they stuffed the fireplace full and then Harl tossed in some kindling and lit it. The oil paintings went up as if they were born to burn.
Harl watched the flames for a half minute, then looked at Arwin and Aoi and nodded towards the door. “Let’s go before someone comes to investigate this.”
Aoi poked her head out the bedroom door to scout the hallway. Finding it clear, the three snuck out. They stood in silence, listening.
An irate, male voice could be heard from somewhere on the first floor. From the tone, it was likely the head of the house.
Arwin opened his mouth to suggest finding the stairs when a bump sounded from behind.
All three whirled. Voices came from a stairway at the back of the hallway.
“Are you ok?” a low, female voice asked.
There was a brief pause, then a higher-pitched girl spoke. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Light laughter. “I just tripped.”
“It’s because you’re carrying too much,” the low voice mildly scolded. “Give me some of those.”
“No! I’m fine, really.”
“Hide!” hissed Harl. Taking his own advice, the old man threw open the nearest door. It was a bedroom. He vanished within, closing the door behind.
Arwin and Aoi panicked, bumped into each other, and heard the footsteps resume. Arwin snatched at the nearest door handle and yanked it open. He pushed Aoi into the dark void beyond and jumped in after her. He closed the door just as the two voices outside came into the hallway.
The room they were in turned out to be a linen closet about two meters deep. It was dark except for a ribbon of light under the door. Shelves were piled high with sheets, blankets, towels and the like.
Aoi fingered some of the fabric on the shelf next to her. She spoke in barely a whisper. “In the village, we all sleep on simple, homespun linen. But nobles like this have the most expensive silks. And there’s enough here alone for a dozen families or more. Imagine how much it would have taken to buy these in a region as poor as ours. We do all the work, yet people like these enjoy the rewards. It’s so unfair.” Her nails angrily curled into the silk.
The voices outside came closer. And closer. Footsteps slowed.
They must be maids. And they might be coming to use this very closet!
Arwin’s pulse raced. He grabbed Aoi’s arm and tugged her deeper into the darkness. There was a pile of dirty bedsheets and towels at the back, on the floor. Together, the two buried themselves beneath it.
Arwin found himself lying on the floor on his side, face-to-face with Aoi, their legs tangled together. He couldn’t see anything, but their faces touched and their bodies shared warmth. He was very well aware of the soft feel of her feminine form and remembered the silken touch of her lips when they’d kissed in the forest. Those lips were tantalizingly close now. He swallowed.
The closet door opened. Someone stepped inside and sounded like they were putting things away on one of the shelves. The two women continued to chat as they worked.
“We might as well take the dirty stuff down while we’re here,” the low voice noted. A hand grabbed hold of the top layer of bedding.
Aoi and Arwin both tensed.
Was Arwin going to have to fight a couple of women? Could he even bring himself to do so? Perhaps he should spring out now and try to catch them off guard before they give the alarm. He started to rise.
“Leave it until later,” the high voice objected. “We still have to strip the master’s bedroom.”
As the two argued about whether or not to deal with the laundry hiding the pair, Arwin felt Aoi’s face shift. Her lips brushed his and then stayed there. Her delicate hand pressed into his back. He felt himself physically reacting to her closeness. Stupid body. Now was not the time!
The two maids took their discussion outside and the door closed behind them.
Aoi threw off the bedding and towels and rose. She put her ear to the door to listen for the maids.
Peeking outside, they saw the way was clear and exited the closet.
Arwin opened the door that Harl had gone into and whispered the other man’s name. The old man slid out from under the bed and rejoined them.
The stairs that the maids had used was apparently just for servants; it was small and cramped and plain. They discovered the main staircase at the other end of the hallway, a wide, curved affair with an elaborate, wooden banister and red carpet.
Halfway down the stairs, they heard the crash of breaking dishwater swiftly followed by a loud slap. It seemed to come from a nearby room with a closed door.
“Fool! Simpleton! Look at this mess. You’re ruining my carpet. Clean it up at once!” There was another loud slap.
Arwin recognized the voice as Azamont’s. It sounded like he was abusing a member of the staff.
They kept a wary lookout for servants and scurried to the door from which the lord’s voice had come. Pausing outside to listen, they heard weeping.
Harl looked Arwin and Aoi in the eye. Everyone nodded, ready. They burst into the room.
Azamont stood in the center of his study, riding crop in hand, his dark-purple tunic partially unbuttoned, face red with anger. Seeing the intrusion, his eyes bulged over his refined moustache. “Who are you? How dare you enter my home uninvited?”
A pretty young man in women’s lingerie, his form lithe and soft, tears streaming down his face and red welts all over his body, was on all fours next to a broken cup and spilled tea. Azamont stood over him.
Arwin gave the blue blood no time to act. He flew across the room and clotheslined the middle-aged man with his forearm, slamming Azamont to the ground.
All breath left Azamont’s chest in a great whoosh. Still, he vainly clawed at Arwin in rage. “P-p-peasant…!”
Aoi dropped to the ground next to Azamont and snapped a blue collar around his neck.
A great battle took place within the blue blood: his body writhed and agony twisted his features. After a few moments desperate struggle within his mind, Azamont slumped, looking begrudgingly beaten. The man’s will must have been strong to resist so much. Luckily, the collar had won out.
Harl helped the tear-stained beau up from the ground. He spoke kindly and acted normally, not commenting on the young man’s attire at all. “There, there, Rintaro. No need to cry anymore. He won’t be harming you ever again. We’ll make sure of that.”
Rintaro sniffled and seemed ready to burst out into fresh tears at the sight of his rescuers. “What have you done?” he asked in a weak voice. He cast desperate glances at both Azamont and the door. “What’s going on?”
Aoi clenched a fist and looked fierce. “Revolution.”
“She’s right,” Harl agreed. “About time we stood up to the rich bastards of the Blue Region. We’re not going to let them decide how our lives are lived anymore. We’re going to decide for ourselves. And build a fair and equal society for all of us.”
Aoi stepped closer to Rintaro. She spoke softly. “No more beaus and belles. No more collars and slavery. We’re going to live for ourselves and for each other, not for selfish people like him.” She nodded towards Azamont.
Rintaro looked even more scared. “He’ll punish us for this!”
Arwin shook his head. “We’re not alone. This is happening all over the village. We’re bringing all the nobles down.”
Rintaro backed up a step, shaking. “You’re insane! You don’t know what he’ll do to us for this. What they’ll all do.” He stumbled backwards onto a couch and collapsed there, frightened tears on his cheeks.
As much as Arwin sympathized, they didn’t have time to waste. There were still staff and guards about. The mission wasn’t yet complete.
Aoi grabbed Azamont by the collar. She delivered a vicious slap to his face, then another on the other side.
Conflict struggled once more on Azamont’s face, but the collar eventually won out and he returned to being docile.
“Your records of ownership, where are they?” she demanded in a cold voice. “Land titles, all of it.”
“I…” This time the conflict on his face went on longer. Apparently, he was a man of terrifyingly strong will. The collar struggled to make him obey. They all breathed a sigh of relief, after a few moments, when he finally calmed. “There.” He pointed to the bookcase behind his desk.
Harl and Arwin bodily hauled the man to his feet.
“Where?” Aoi snapped. “Show us.”
Azamont trudged to the bookcase. He pulled two spines out slightly and the case slid aside, revealing a safe in the white stone wall.
“Where’s the key?” Arwin asked, noting the keyhole.
Azamont scowled briefly, then his face stilled. He pulled a key out from under his tunic, where it was hung from a cord around his neck.
Harl opened the safe. The inside was about one meter cubed and stuffed full of papers and sacks of coin.
Aoi and Harl both gasped.
“A bloody fortune!” Harl managed. He pulled out a heavy coin sack. It fell open and gold coins spilled out.
“You could feed the entire village for a decade with what’s in this safe. While many in the village struggle to survive day to day, he has all this…” She picked the riding crop off the floor, where Azamont had dropped it, then came to his side. With savage force, she whipped him with it, leaving angry, red marks on his face and arm.
Arwin instinctively thought to stop her, but held himself back. It was nothing less than the bastard deserved.
Harl riffled through a stack of papers pulled from the safe. “It’s no good. I don’t really understand these things. Which are the ones we need?”
Arwin took the stack and quickly flipped through. He saw shipping manifests, sales receipts, contracts for various services. In a folder at the bottom were land titles to his estate and several pieces of property in the village. Arwin grinned and held them up. “Got ‘em!”
The door crashed open, startling the trio of invaders. Two men in uniforms burst into the room, clubs in hand. The clubs were wood, but had heavy, banded iron rings on the end and the weapons could no doubt be used to deadly affect.
The guard on the left shouted. “You there! On the ground!”
“But how did they—?” Aoi breathed, momentarily confused and looking scared.
Arwin’s eyes darted about the room. The young man in lingerie was gone. Surely he hadn’t fled and alerted the guards, had he? What appalling cowardice. They should have kept an eye on him.
Harl cursed, his age-old face wrinkled with frustration. How well could an old man stand up against others half is age?
The guards charged. The first one tackled Harl to the ground and they wrestled in front of the couch, broken tea cup crackling under them. Harl cried out in pain.
Arwin pushed the papers into Aoi’s hands and thrust her behind him so fast that she stumbled. Ducking the incoming guard’s club, he lunged forward, grabbed the man about the waist and lifted him off his feet before slamming him down to the ground.
The guard grunted. He was not as muscular as Arwin but still had enough presence of mind to repeatedly slam his club into Arwin’s back.
The painful blows bruised deep. The pain was enough to push Arwin away and he watched the guard’s lips twist in triumph. Arwin crawled through the blows, taking the hits. With one hand, he took hold of the guard’s throat. With the other, he punched the guard over and over in the face. When the guard slowed his movements, Arwin took the opportunity to punch him in the throat too, leaving him choking. Panting and hurt, Arwin climbed to his feet and stomped as hard as he could on the guard’s solar plexus before kicking him in the face. Then he looked up, ready to help his comrade.
Somehow, Harl had already subdued his own guard easily enough. He huffed as he stood up from the floor. “Bah, these guys are soft. Too much time sitting around threatening people and drinking instead of doing any real work.”
“Rintaro.” Aoi looked bewildered. “He must have alerted them. But why?”
Harl shrugged one shoulder. “Fear.”
“But he won’t have anything to fear soon enough,” she protested. “Why would he betray us?”
“We’ve been lucky enough so far,” Harl replied, “but that luck could run out at any time. And there’s no telling how the others are faring. Trying to round up a couple dozen blue bloods and councillors isn’t going to be easy. If we fail, these bloody nobles will probably do a lot worse than put collars on us. We’re definitely the underdog’s here. Besides, looks like whatever Rintaro’s been through has marked him deep. And he was never a strong boy, growing up, either.”
Aoi trembled with rising anger. Her arm rose and fell, bringing the riding crop down on Azamont’s head. “Curse you! All you do is ruin lives. I hate you all!”
This time, Arwin did stop her, gently taking her arm. But not before a couple of wounds opened in the lord’s face and a few drops of blood smeared across his skin. “Punish him later. We have a job to do.”
They ran out of the room, Aoi leading with the stash of property papers in one hand and the riding crop in the other, Arwin and Harl pulling the cooperative but lethargic Azamont along with them. With the alarm already given, they made for the back door to the garden. But before they could reach it, a glowing seal appeared over the door. Word of their intrusion must have spread.
“We’ll have to go out the front,” Harl growled in his gruff voice. He hefted a club that he’d taken from one of the guards.
Arwin wished he’d thought to do the same.
They ran through the house and out the main door. Outside the front of the house was a wide circle made of white paving stone for carriages, with a few tall trees in a grassy knoll in the middle. The surrounding area was forest, giving the estate privacy from the road beyond.
The group made it only a couple of steps before three more guards appeared from behind nearby trees. And one of them looked especially dangerous.